Culture

The White Book by Han Kang, translated by Deborah Smith

The White Book BY Han Kang. Hogarth. Hardcover, 160 pages. $20.

What is color to literature? For one thing, a problem. Language deals in delineation. This makes it an odd match to account for color—an abstract, pure vividness—which, on its own, has no differentiating power at all. At the same time, without color, visual differentiation becomes difficult. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, in the introduction to his 1810 Theory of Colours, wrote that “the eye sees no form, inasmuch as light, shade, and colour together constitute that which to our vision distinguishes object from object.”

It’s no surprise, then, that most attempts to give a literary account of color proceed by enumerating colorful objects. William H. Gass’s 1976 On Being Blue: A Philosophical Inquiry opens with a list of blue things. (“Blue pencils, blue noses, blue movies,” it begins, mixing the word’s metaphorical and literal senses almost immediately.) Maggie Nelson’s 2009 Bluets employs lists, too, though in a more self-conscious manner. Early in the book, Nelson indexes the gifts she has been given in service of the book to come: “blue inks, paintings, postcards, dyes, bracelets, rocks, precious stones, watercolors, pigments, paperweights, goblets, and candies.” In this tactic lies a point of tension: neither Gass nor Nelson mean, ultimately, to get at things of a certain color. They want the color itself. Perhaps in painting this is possible. But in literature, we’re left with words.

Han Kang’s The White Book, her third novel translated into English by Deborah Smith, confronts this same problem. Like Gass’s book, it opens with a list; unlike his, Kang’s explicitly acknowledges its concern with things. The narrator begins, “In the spring, when I decided to write about white things, the first thing I did was make a list.” The list follows:

Swaddling bands

Newborn gown

Salt

Snow

Ice

Moon

Rice

Waves

Yulan

White bird

“Laughing whitely”

Blank paper

White dog

White hair

Shroud

From the start, a structure is clear. The list begins with birth and ends with death; its shape is life’s. The White Book—which, like all monochromatic meditations, is both about its color and about other matters entirely—is a novel of birth and death in quick succession, circumscribed by another’s life. The narrator, a writer visiting an unnamed European city once occupied by the Nazis, is haunted by the loss of an older sister she never knew, who died only hours after being born. The narrator understands herself as occupying the void in the world left by her sister. “I’d been born and raised in the place of that death,” she writes.

The White Book, which is resolutely plotless, follows the narrator’s reckoning with this consuming grief. This task is complicated by the fact that her own life is predicated on her sister’s death. How does one mourn a loss that doubles as the condition of possibility of one’s own existence? Making a list of white things allows the narrator an oblique way into this seemingly ungraspable sorrow. She writes, “I felt that . . . the process of writing [this book] would be transformative, would itself transform into something like white ointment applied to a swelling, like gauze laid over a wound.” The White Book enacts the narrator’s mourning as a form of reconciliation with the tragedy that preceded and defined her life.

The book is divided into short sections with evocative headings, some drawn from this initial list, many not: The direction of the light, Sugar cubes, Frost. These are collected into three longer chapters, titled “I,” “She,” and “All Whiteness.” In the first chapter, the narrator settles into the strange city and considers her grief, which she finds reflected back to her as she strolls the city’s streets. Color brings the two subjects close. The narrator associates her sister with whiteness, and the city shows itself to her as white. She even refers to it as the “white city,” and the white fog that cloaks it recalls the sister she has been told had “a face as white as a crescent-moon rice cake” and who was wrapped in swaddling bands “white as snow” during the first frost of the year. Footage taken from a military plane in 1945 shows the city apparently “mantled with snow,” but it turns out to be just “the white glow of stone ruins.” White is innocence—the narrator calls uncooked rice cakes “a thing so lovely they do not seem of this world”—but it’s also the ruins of a past that can’t be left behind. It’s the death around which life has grown.

And, as the narrator acknowledges, white is less an aspect of objects than a way of seeing them. “When darkness is imbued with even the faintest light, even things that would not otherwise be white glow with a hazy pallor,” she observes. White is always there, awaiting the right mixture of darkness and light. Under a certain gaze, the city is nothing like a ruin. This is not how the narrator sees it. She writes:

In this city there is nothing that has existed for more than seventy years. The fortresses of the old quarter, the splendid palace, the lakeside villa on the outskirts where royalty once summered—all are fakes. They are new things, painstakingly reconstructed based on photographs, pictures, maps. Where a pillar or perhaps the lower part of a wall happens to have survived, it has been incorporated into the new structure. The boundaries that separate old from new, the seams bearing witness to destruction, lie conspicuously exposed.

As the book goes on, the seam running between the narrator and her absent sister, too, becomes increasingly exposed. The narrator begins to imagine her sister, alive, wandering through the city in her stead. In lines of poetry that break into the prose, she writes that she “will give [her sister] white things.” This leads into the second, longest chapter, “She,” in which the sister—summoned, animated, and given shape by these white things—takes the narrator’s place.

The imagined sister wanders the city and her own memory, her path guided but not constrained by the narrator’s list, which continues to provide some but not all of the section headings. The narrator stays close in other ways, too, mostly by means of an “our” that sometimes comes in the guise of a universal humanity (“our lives are no more than brief instants”) but ultimately reveals its true intimacy (“our mother’s ashes would lie in changeless calm inside a sealed stone drawer”). It proves impossible for the narrator to imagine her sister without her own presence. In the first chapter, the reader learns that the narrator suffers from terrible migraines. The imagined sister has a similar, if not identical, affliction. The novel intimates that this chronic condition has to do with grief, with its relentless hardness at the center of life—so this, too, the sisters share.

In a section titled Breath cloud, the “our” brings the two together not only in spirit or in speech, but in body:

On cold mornings, that first white cloud of escaping breath is proof that we are living. Proof of our bodies’ warmth. Cold air rushes into dark lungs, soaks up the heat of our body, and is exhaled as perceptible form, white flecked with gray. Our lives’ miraculous diffusion, out into the empty air.

This diffusion is the subject of the book’s final chapter, in which the narrator comes to realize the impossibility of separating herself from her sister. In a rare moment of straightforwardness, she puts it plainly. Considering the two children—her sister and a rarely mentioned brother—her parents lost before she and her younger brother were born, she writes: “Had those lives made it safely past the point of crisis, my own birth, which followed three years later, and that of my brother four years after that, would not have come about.” The narrator's reckoning with the fact that her own life and her sister's are mutually exclusive leads her to a new appreciation of their inseparability.

This recognition is what brings the narrator from white things to whiteness itself, a shift Kang hints at earlier: “Is it because of some billowing whiteness within us, unsullied, inviolate, that our encounters with objects so pristine never fail to leave us moved?” In the final chapter, the narrator reflects that it was her attempt to see the world through her sister’s eyes that allowed her access to this whiteness. She was trying, she says, to use this new vision to show her sister pure things. “But,” she writes, “it didn’t come off as I intended.” Because the whiteness is not simply purity, but something else—something inflected with the inextricability of the living from the dead, the reconstruction from the ruin. Like the color itself, it’s not something that can be accessed directly.


Nathan Goldman is a writer living in Minneapolis.